You might say that the title of this entry could have been the “log line” for this Hitchcock classic. As we’ve talked about before, the “log line” is that one sentence answer whenever someone asks, “What’s that movie about?” Regardless, I was appalled, astounded and alarmed that I hadn’t discussed a Hitchcock film yet in this blog’s nearly 100-post deep library. The insanity! Let’s pull this James Stewart starring film apart, shall we? Now, get cozy: get a cup of tea, a glass of wine or your favorite snack, because this is going to be a long one…
The story concerns a famous photographer, L.B. Jeffries, played by Stewart. Poor “Jeff” is in a wheelchair with a broken leg, which was the result of an accident on a recent photography expedition. This man’s dedication to his job is evidenced by numerous exotic photos all over his apartment, which is where most of the story takes place. Jeff’s only got a week to go until the cast comes off, and to him, that week can’t pass soon enough. The only interesting thing for this globe-trotter to do has been watching the goings-on in the courtyard behind his apartment. In other words, he’s kind of been spying on his neighbors. Please remember, this is before everyone had a T.V. The story does a fine job of establishing that Jeff isn’t exactly the type to curl up with a good book.
I have two theories why this spying is OK with us, the audience. First, it’s James Stewart. We know this guy! By this time in film history, we had seen him in It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention several other Academy Award nominated films. In real life, he even jumped into the Air Force with both feet (and retired a General, I believe?). IE, we like the leading man just fine. The second reason the audience is likely to accept his “peeping Tom” behavior is a little more personal and awkward: we can identify. Who amongst us hasn’t taken the opportunity to watch an individual, a couple or a group of people who were sure he/she/they were alone? We’re not proud of it, perhaps, but we did it. So, we can at least appreciate where Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries is coming from. And another element worth mentioning, Jeff is not malicious in his observations. I’ll come back to this one later when I let you in on a little question I had…
Before the trouble starts, there are plenty more “fun and games” established. We get to meet the neighbors in the courtyard – through IMAGES and some punctuated sound design. In other words, if this film had been silent, it wouldn’t have been as good, but it would have definitely worked. Jeff has affectionately nicknamed many of his neighbors: there’s Miss Lonely Hearts, the Musician, the Couple (with the dog they lower down to the courtyard in a basket), a Husband and Wife (she’s bedridden), a newlywed couple and my personal favorite, Miss Torso. She’s quite the dancer and hostess. But consider for a moment how almost all of these characters are revealed to us in long shots: only later do we meet one or two in close up shots that communicate more of their character. Hitchcock’s choices of when in the story and how he frames his characters is textbook film making. A perfect example is Miss Lonely Hearts. We meet her “far away,” or in long shot, in Jeff’s apartment. Only when the story demands it do we get closer to her – through Jeff’s binoculars and telephoto lens.
We even get to meet Jeffries’ girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly (please see “BIG FAT NOTE” below). She’s a gifted fashion designer and model – and she’s in love with Jeff. In fact, she loves him so much she even has a five-star dinner catered to his Chelsea apartment. Sometimes she “slips into something more comfortable,” if you know what I mean… Short of a bum leg, Jeff’s got quite the life! Except he doesn’t: one of his neighbors is a murderer, and without his involvement, the guy will go free. And there ends Act I.
As we jump into Act II, it’s fascinating that Hitchcock doesn’t hide who the murderer is. Everything from how the killer probably did it to his motive is put on the table, and this decision to “lay his cards down” speaks volumes about the story told cinematically (that’s a word, dammit, it’s a word it tell you). Think about it: if I handed you a Mickey Spillane novel and then told you who did it, why and how, you’d hand it right back. But with film – and particularly how Hitchcock portrays suspense – it’s all about the HOW, isn’t it? Rear Window is no exception, and shows Hitchcock’s prowess at its best.
Act II continues with further conflict, in a textbook fashion. Not only does the behavior of one of the neighbors become more and more suspicious, but also the tension between Jeff and Lisa grows. It’s almost as if, in a funny way, the murder investigation keeps Jeff and Lisa together. He’s made it clear that she’s too good for him: translation, “I want to run through the mud and shoot photos and you’re a New York fashion gal – and our relationship doesn’t make sense.” I’m surely not saying anything new here, but isn’t it interesting how Jeff must have this investigation to keep himself occupied (AND solve a murder, I know), but Lisa needs it because it’s the first thing in a long time that Jeff has let her be involved in! The ultra-tension that exists in one particular scene in which a character we’ve come to love is caught somewhere they shouldn’t be literally gets your butt on the edge of its chair. Stewart’s reaction in this scene is priceless. He shakes his head, widens his eyes and grabs his hair in his hand – just like we are!
Let’s come back to something I mentioned before, regarding a question I had… I said that Jeff isn’t malicious in his observations: my question is why he never took pictures of the murderer… I haven’t read up on this film in detail, but my suspicion is that Hitchcock decided that if Jeff took pictures, perhaps we the audience wouldn’t feel so interested in his desire to expose the murderer. We have all observed other folks candidly, as I said – but perhaps the director and/or star decided that taking pictures would’ve been over the line? I ask this question because it seems to go against Jeff’s inquisitive, adventurous nature. Particularly if Jeff loves his job as much as he says he does, wouldn’t he snap a few of the murder suspect? Also, consider the fact that his good pal, the cop Detective Lieutenant Doyle, refuses to believe him… despite hearing about how the suspect has been seen wrapping sharp tools in newspaper for disposal!
Hopefully, I’ve whet your appetite to see this Hitchcock classic. It’s got unforgettable moments and some pretty funny parts, too. Think of when the nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter – you may recognize her from Miracle on 34th Street, amongst others…) puts a nice hot breakfast in front of Jeff only to go on and on about another insurance job she was on – and all the bloody details. Oh, and don’t forget to keep your eye out for “Hitch” himself: he was infamous for inserting himself into his films at one place or another (my favorite might be North by Northwest when he misses the bus in the opening credits).
Big Fat Note: Let’s talk about the old “fly on the wall” fantasy for a moment, shall we? I’ve had this fantasy thousands of times and you probably have too, but how fun would it have been to be that fly on the wall as Hitchcock broke the news to Stewart that his character, L.B. Jeffries, would NOT be “gaga” over Grace Kelly’s Lisa. Here’s an idea of how I see that conversation going in a little bungalow on the Paramount lot –
HITCHCOCK (takes deep breath, which sounds like it may be his last): You see, Mr. Stewart –
STEWART: Oh, come on now, doggone it, I’ve told you, call me JIMMY! It’s OK with me… now, now, what was that you were saying?
H: Well, Jimmy, your character, Mr. Jeffries, will not be head over heels in love with Miss Fremont, portrayed by Miss Grace Kelly. In fact (DEEP breath), he will find her too perfect, and therefore see himself as better off continuing his adventurous lifestyle. (rubs brow with handkerchief)
S: (wearing his perplexed face): Well, now, ahhh, wh-wh-wh-wh-WHAT? Mr. Hitchcock –
H (DEEP breath): Please, Jimmy, call me Alfie…
S: OK, OK, ahhh…. ALFIE! Who’s going to buy that a woman that looks like this (holds up Kelly’s headshot) can’t get a fella like ME to like her? Now, now, now don’t’cha see… it, it, it, it just doesn’t make SENSE!
Somewhat Educational Note: Hitchcock, during one interview I have seen, said that the real work in the film, for him, was the storyboarding. This is the process of putting the image down on paper. Literally stick figures – sometimes more elaborate drawings are rendered, of course – are drawn out on a page with arrows meaning this angle and/or movement, etc. Hitchock insisted that once he got to set, he had kind of already seen the film and it was just a matter or capturing it on film…